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Koules's heart still in Tampa despite sale

Owner Oren Koules of the Tampa Bay Lightning announces the first pick of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft at Scotiabank Place on June 20, 2008 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Bruce Bennett/2008 Getty Images

Oren Koules will be in Toronto Wednesday, overseeing the start of filming of Saw VII, the latest instalment of the immensely successful movie franchise that made him rich enough to be an NHL owner.

But it didn't make him rich enough to be an NHL owner without partners, which is why his heart will be back in Tampa with the club he had to sell last week to Boston money manager Jeffrey Vinik.

"The part that hurts is when we finally got through the circus and got to concentrate on building, we had a pretty good team," Koules said yesterday. "Not seeing it to the conclusion is hard. I always dreamed every day of making the playoffs. We have a chance to make the playoffs and that's our goal."

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Before Monday night's games, the Lightning were seventh in the Eastern Conference with a 25-21-11 record and 61 points, one point behind the Montreal Canadiens. It is not the record of a dynasty in the making but it is a far cry from what the Lightning were when Koules and his former partner Len Barrie took over in June, 2008 - tied for last overall - and what they were in the first season of their ill-fated partnership - second-last overall.

Koules can argue that after he essentially assumed control of the club last summer after a falling out with Barrie, whose financial woes in other ventures affected his ability to pay the Lightning's bills, he managed to reverse the team's fortunes. Admittedly, mistakes were made, most of them with Barrie, from a long list of multiyear player contracts to the hiring of Barry Melrose as head coach, but once Rick Tocchet was given some time to establish his program as head coach and general manager Brian Lawton no longer had to worry about serving two masters the Lightning started to come around.

"Last March, I promised Rick Tocchet stability in the organization," Koules said. "I also promised Lawton we would do the best we could to build a good team."

They managed to do that despite the on-again, off-again rumours that superstar Vincent Lecavalier was about to be traded.

The trouble was, Koules was hit by a double whammy. The recession, which hit particularly hard in Florida, still has not gone away. The unemployment rate in the Tampa area is 12.5 per cent. And the fans, burned by a series of management miscues in the years following the Lightning's Stanley Cup win in 2004, were further stung by the disastrous first year of the Koules-Barrie partnership and refused to come back when the team improved this season.

By the time Koules was forced to give up his own search for a partner to buy out Barrie and admit he had to sell the club, the turnstile count at Lightning games this season averaged about 10,500. That meant the only team in the league with less revenue was the NHL's red-headed step-child, the Phoenix Coyotes, and Koules was forced to turn to the NHL for an advance on the club's revenue-sharing money.

Koules, who may have lost as much as $40-million after buying the club for $207-million (U.S.), admits he is bruised but remains proud of the franchise he turned over to Vinik.

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"The fans will come back," said Koules, who is convinced Tampa is a good hockey market. "[Vinik]is going to benefit from a lot of the work we did. We have the [farm system]in place and we have a good NHL team. That wasn't the case when we took over."

The NHL has probably not seen the last of Koules. A league source says NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is not opposed to Koules buying into another franchise. There are at least half a dozen clubs for sale or looking for investors and the source said a couple of them have shown interest in Koules.

But Koules declined to talk about his future plans other than to say he is just going to worry about Saw VII right now.

"I'm far wiser than I was 2 1/2 years ago," he said. "This was hard but I learned a lot. I think I put the organization in good shape. No one makes fun of this team any more."

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